American soccer has a glamorous new face: David Beckham, one of the world's most famous players.
In a stunning move yesterday, David Beckham signed a five-year contract to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer that will pay him an estimated $250 million in salary and endorsements -- nearly $1 million a week.
Beckham brings glitz, glamour and a pop-star wife -- he's married to ex-Spice Girl Victoria Adams -- to a struggling league sorely in need of marketing power.
Major League Soccer (MLS) has lost hundreds of millions of dollars since it began play in 1996 and failed to find firm footing in a sports landscape dominated by more familiar team sports. The league hopes Beckham can change that.
"There are so many great sports in America," said Beckham, 31. "There are so many kids that play baseball, American football, basketball. But soccer is huge all around the world apart from America, so that's where I want to make a difference with the kids."
Beckham, with his movie-star looks and despite his fading skills, is perhaps better poised than any other player to do just that. Beckham is an enormously popular fashion icon and tabloid fixture in Europe, the player whose curling free kicks inspired the hit movie "Bend It Like Beckham."
Beckham and Ms. Adams make a good fit for Los Angeles as two celebrities who already end up on magazine covers and in the pages of tabloids.
Ms. Adams, aka Posh Spice, went house-hunting in the Los Angeles area in December and checked out a mansion near the home of the Beckhams' friends, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
L.A. will have to wait, however, at least for a little while. The Galaxy opens its season on April 8, but Beckham isn't expected to join his new team until August. His four-year contract with Real Madrid expires at the end of this season.
The Galaxy is operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which was founded by billionaire Phil Anschutz and operates three MLS teams.
"There is not an expectation that David Beckham will make this league relevant, because this league is already relevant," said Tim Leiweke, AEG's president. "Beckham will make us relevant internationally, and more people will follow our game."
Beckham's deal with the Galaxy represents a hefty raise on an already-hefty paycheck. Beckham's salary with Real Madrid was $8 million, and he earned another $30 million from major sponsorship deals with Gillette, Pepsi and Motorola. MLS changed its rules on salary caps in order for Beckham to sign the lucrative deal.
"I didn't want to go to America at 34 years old and have people saying I'm only going out there to make money," Beckham told the BBC. "I'm going hopefully to build a club and a team that has a lot of potential."
D.C. United will play host to the Galaxy at RFK Stadium in the upcoming season, and Beckham will be a huge draw.
"In soccer, he is a big name and people will come out to see him," said Kim Klyberg, the head of the Screaming Eagles, United's biggest fan club. "We hope the people who come to see Beckham will become United fans."
Beckham gained his fame playing for Manchester United, with whom he won six league championships and Europe's Champions League title. He is the only English player to have scored at three World Cups. He moved to Real Madrid in 2003, but found little success there. Beckham, in fact, has started only seven of 25 matches for Real Madrid.
The news of Beckham's move surprised many in the soccer world. Beckham twice was voted the runner-up for the top world player of the year award, and clubs in Italy, Japan and England wanted to sign him.
Beckham led England to the quarterfinals at the World Cup in Germany last summer, scoring a stunning goal on a free kick in the second round. But England lost to Portugal in a penalty shootout after Beckham left the field injured and in tears.
Beckham resigned as captain of the team a day later. On Aug. 11, the team dropped Beckham altogether, marking the end of his international career.
Many fans are hoping Beckham will do for MLS what Brazilian star Pele did for the old North American Soccer League, when crowds of more than 70,000 flocked to see Pele play for the New York Cosmos at Giants Stadium.
"Obviously, this is extraordinary news for Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy," said Kevin Payne, president of D.C. United. "David Beckham is arguably the biggest world star in sports."